Your St. Olaf College tour guide will tell you about the Caf. She will tell you that when the College built Buntrock Commons in 1999, students voted overwhelmingly for one single dining hall, so they could all eat together. She will tell you about the six buffet lines of award-winning cafeteria food, the extensive salad bar and the Malt-O-Meal cereal choices. She may even point out the vaulted ceiling – three stories high, the balcony seating perfect for less-social dinner-goers and the mass of hand-scrawled posters illegibly advertising dances and meetings. She will tell you everything you need to know, but she will not really tell you about the Caf.
She will not tell you what it is like to eat lunch at a round table, sitting with your back to the colossal chilly window that frames a regal Holland Hall. She will not be able to explain the flavor of a day when the afternoon sun dances through the window in thick, slanting yellow streaks and lands like a spotlight on your blue plastic plate heaping with cooked broccoli, polenta, grilled chicken and tomato salad. She will forget to mention that this table, tucked in the back left corner with the lonely potted fern, is the perfect place for you to watch the other tables fill to capacity as the students tumble through the silverware line – fork, knife, spoon – and emerge into the shiny white cavern to search for their friends. Your greedy gaze can gulp up every seat but the few hidden behind towering limestone pillars that suspend the perimeter of a balcony above you. You can listen to the sound of your own laugh as it bounces off the soaring walls, mingling with 300 other voices at a time. And you can watch the Caf empty again a half an hour later as the students shuffle back to the rest of their lives.
Your tour guide will not tell you that the Caf is a hazelnut of a world. It is cultures and nations and laughter and anxiety and sustenance all rolled up into seven buffet lines and a few hundred translucent plastic chairs. She will not tell you about the magic.